By Jessica Wehrman & Darrel Rowland
Since its inception shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack, the no-fly list has been a controversial element of the nation's armor of self-protection.
The concept is simple: If the federal government thinks you're a terrorist or linked to terrorists, you can't fly.
But now, with President Barack Obama calling for those on the no-fly list to be barred from buying guns, the list, once again, has emerged as a hot-button issue.
"Congress should act to make sure no one on a no-fly list is able to buy a gun," Obama said during a rare Oval Office address on Sunday. "What could possibly be the argument for allowing a terrorist suspect to buy a semiautomatic weapon?"
Gov. John Kasich -- in a position that makes him something of an outlier among Republicans -- would ban gun sales to those on the no-fly list, but he said he worries about banning sales from the larger Terrorism Screening Database, of which the no-fly list is a subset. His specific concern: that it would alert people that they are being watched as terrorism suspects.
"We don't tell them they're on a terrorist watch list. We want to know who they are and we want to know what their processes and procedures are. And that list apparently is pretty broad. Should we figure out a way to keep people like that from being able to get firearms? I think the answer would be yes, OK?" he told a questioner on Saturday during a town-hall meeting at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H.
His concern is echoed by Dave Joly, a spokesman for the Terrorist Screening Center at the FBI.
"Disclosure of an individual's inclusion or non-inclusion in the (database) or on the no-fly list would significantly impair the government's ability to investigate and counteract terrorism and protect transportation security," he said.
Critics including the American Civil Liberties Union, however, worry that the lists can target innocent people unfairly.
"There have been all kinds of people put on that list who weren't a threat," said Rep. Jim Jordan, R-Urbana, who argues that the government is too reliably ineffective to be able to handle such a list capably. "There are all kinds of mistakes that have been made."
Information about the no-fly list is murky.
According to the TSA, there are fewer than 50,000 on the no-fly list and selectee list, a secondary list that puts people through additional screening before boarding a plane. The larger Terrorist Screening Database included more than 700,000 in April 2007, according to an audit by the Department of Justice, and was growing at a rate of about 20,000 a month.
Sen. Ted Kennedy complained in 2004 that he was put on a no-fly list; in fact, according to the TSA, he was misidentified as an individual on a separate list for additional screening but was not on the actual no-fly list. The TSA Secure Flight initiative -- aimed at more-efficiently matching passengers and watch lists -- was seen as a way to help address many of the problems posed by the watch list. Yusuf Islam -- the 1960s folk singer known as Cat Stevens who urged listeners to "ride on the peace train" -- was put on the list.
So was Jim Irvine. He's the president of the Buckeye Firearms Association, the leading gun-rights group in Ohio who is also a commercial airline pilot.
He said that for three years he was mistaken for another Jim Irvine -- one who was born the same month as he. It made his job extremely difficult.
Oddly, he was permitted to fly a plane -- they involve different lists. But when he wanted to ride on a plane as a passenger -- as pilots often do -- he ran into all sorts of trouble.
"My life sucked for three years going to work," he said. "I was OK to sit in the cockpit but not to sit in the cabin."
While Obama is targeting the no-fly list, others worry that it eventually will lead to the government banning gun purchases for those on the overall Terrorist Screening Database.
"We've had lot of constituents over the last several years call and complain about being on the (no-fly) list, how difficult it is to get off it and not knowing how they even got on it," said Rep. Pat Tiberi, R-Genoa Township. "The fact is that the list has huge problems. It has huge holes in it."
Kasich is rare in having not outright lambasted the proposal, and his willingness even spurred a White House spokesman this week to cite Kasich's stance as evidence that it was a reasonable proposal.
But former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, appearing on ABC's This Week, said the list is not something "that you can be certain of," saying it's "not an accurate list to be able to use for restricting gun rights for law-abiding citizens." Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., also expressed concern about it.
Debate over the lists briefly disrupted the House on Tuesday, when Democrats repeatedly offered motions to adjourn in an effort to get a vote on the no-fly-list issue on the floor. And the Senate last week rejected a measure to keep guns out of the hands of those on the Terrorist Screening Database, with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, voting against the measure and Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, voting for it, saying the proposal was "common sense."
"If someone poses too great a risk to our security to fly, then he should not be able to procure an assault weapon," Brown said.
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